Even at the age of ninety, Dr. Ruth Westheimer shows no signs of letting up or slowing down in her career as one of the world’s foremost experts on some of its most taboo subjects. During a recent press day to promote the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth (now playing in Toronto and Vancouver and expanding to additional cities in the coming weeks) on a rainy afternoon in Toronto, Westheimer, despite granting interviews all afternoon alongside the film’s director Ryan White, has more energy, enthusiasm, wit, and zeal than the weary reporters sitting down to talk to her.
She’s been going non-stop since early in the morning, and that evening she will be making appearances at not one, but two screenings of her film (one public, one private) at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Then the next morning, it’s back to her home base of New York City to do it all again at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is on top of her career, which never takes a backseat to such diversions in her life. It’s easy to wonder how she does it and why she’s been able to endure as one of the foremost and most famous faces in her field, but once you’re in her presence, it’s impossible not to be energized and engaged by her. She’s a sweet, but powerful older woman who says exactly what’s on her mind without filter or ambiguity, and she almost always does it with a smile and warmth. Dr. Ruth Westheimer is the definition of a human being that can light up a room.
Ask Dr. Ruth certainly isn’t the only book, film, or television special made about Westheimer’s remarkable career, but outside of her first autobiography, All in a Lifetime, published all the way back in 1988, it’s one of the few times America’s preeminent authority on sexuality has gotten personal and in depth about her past.
Dr. Ruth (who published three books last year alone and has more planned throughout 2019) didn’t get her medical career started until she got her doctorate from Columbia University at the age of 42. Coming to America and New York City in 1956 and living today in the same Washington Heights apartment she’s owned for 54 years, Westheimer was the daughter of German-Jews. During the Nazi rise to power prior to World War II, Westheimer was forced to separate from her parents in Frankfurt as a child and join the Kindertransport, escaping to an orphanage in Switzerland.
A large portion of Ask Dr. Ruth finds Westheimer reliving a lot of painful memories from her early years, but they were a well documented period of her life. As a child, Westheimer kept detailed diaries of her feelings and daily routines, as well as all of the letters she exchanged with her parents until they disappeared like so many German-Jews without a trace.
White’s vision for Ask Dr. Ruth revolved not only around Westheimer’s close participation and cooperation with the project, but also animated recreations of her early life. It’s difficult for Westheimer to talk about to this day, and she admits to having some doubts of the effectiveness of animation, but she had faith that a seasoned documentarian like White would be able to treat the material with empathy, respect, and truthfulness.
“At first when I heard that Ryan wanted to make a documentary about me, I initially decided, ‘no,’ because so much has been written about me and there has been so much on film and television,” Westheimer says about her initial doubts about opening up on such an intimate level again. “I knew that especially with regard to my early childhood, I didn’t know what Ryan’s questions would be or how it would turn out. I knew that he was going to use animation because there weren’t many pictures from my childhood around the time I left Germany because of the Nazis. I didn’t know at the time how it was going to look with me reading the letters that I still have from my parents. I just hoped that the audience at large would understand why I was doing this. I have no problem admitting how worried I was about the animation, but it turned out brilliant. I’m not even sure that the animators know just how much their work means to me and what they’ve captured with it. It’s so much better than I could’ve hoped. It’s a hard time to talk about.”
Westheimer credits the film’s producers and White’s impressive bodies of documentary work as being one of the biggest factors in winning her over. She also deeply appreciated White’s setting of emotional boundaries when it came to things she doesn’t like talking about.
“Our producer, Rafael Marmor, had my phone number from someone we both knew in Jerusalem, and he had done a film called No Place on Earth. That movie reminds me of a song in German that was crucial in my life. Rafael said that he wanted to make this movie about me with Ryan, so he sent me a bunch of DVDs – because I’m not computer literate – and I looked at his work. I watched The Case Against 8, all seven hours of The Keepers, which I couldn’t stop watching once I started, and Serena and Good Ol’ Freda, and he just seemed so versatile and brilliant. He was also a good looking guy. (laughs) Once I met him and said yes, I gave him all the time possible. I’m old enough to know how I’m going to react to certain questions, and while I’m usually quite open about most things, I also know that at any point, I could just tell Ryan, “next question” and move on. I remember writing my first autobiography, and that I constructed it by talking to my therapist and figuring out what I wanted to say about my childhood experiences and my feelings about that. I always knew what he would get and what he wouldn’t get. The last line of the film is me telling him, ‘You will never know how much money I have, and you’ll never know with whom I’m sleeping.’”
While her career as a public and sometimes divisive figure has been an open book for almost all to see, it was those early years and her status of one of only three hundred or so children from Germany to escape the country on train that still looms largest in her memory. Some of the biggest pain and survivor’s guilt comes from the fact that she constantly wonders what life would’ve been like if she had stayed behind with her parents.
“Once I met with the producer and agreed to do the film with Ryan, I knew it would be painful to go back to those years,” Westheimer says strongly, and somewhat solemnly. “I still remember how it felt getting a postcard from my father, who was in a concentration camp, telling me I had to get on a train with other children out of the country. My parents gave me life twice: once when I was born and once when that said I had to join the Kindertransport. I didn’t want to go, but with that postcard in my hand, I knew I didn’t have a choice. The reason I went on the Swiss train was because I came from an Orthodox Jewish background, and the children who went to Switzerland went to an Orthodox Jewish children’s home. For some years, I thought if I had stayed in Frankfurt that I could’ve saved them, which was stupid in hindsight. I wouldn’t be alive today if I did that. Similarly, if I had boarded a train to Holland, Belgium, or France instead, I wouldn’t be alive. You would never have met me.”
It was during her time in Switzerland – before moving to an Israeli kibbutz and even serving in the country’s military as a sniper – that she first got the idea to become a sex educator, spurred on by her randomly picking up a volume written by Dutch gynecologist Theodore Hendrik van de Velde (Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique) and becoming enthralled and enlightened by it.
“I did not know when I was younger that I would talk about sex from morning to night, but I remember picking up that book when I was in Switzerland in the orphanage. I became the girl who taught the other girls about menstruation. I never knew I would become Dr. Ruth Westheimer or the voice of a nation on the issue of sex.”
Ask Dr. Ruth director White, who sits next to Westheimer during the interview, but always allows his subject to steer the conversation and take centre stage, notes that he never once heard her talk about sex during their time together unless it was in a professional capacity. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the blunt and purposefully graphic depictions of sexuality Westheimer talked about on her radio show or numerous television appearances. Whenever sex was the subject, Westheimer treated it with the utmost seriousness, in spite of threats of censorship or protests and backlash from the then so-called “moral majority.”
“On radio and television, there were the famous seven words you weren’t allowed to say, and as you can see in the film, we said them,” Westheimer says about the matter-of-fact tone that made her first late night radio show, which premiered in 1980 on New York’s WYNY almost as a programming afterthought, a vehicle propelling the doctor in to stardom and greater public esteem. “I knew right away that I wouldn’t do a program where I couldn’t teach a subject in a way that I thought it needed to be taught. If I cannot say ‘orgasm’ or ‘erection,’ then I can’t talk about issues of sexuality in a way that everyone listening to me could understand it. There was never a discussion about that, and I was grateful for that.”
Thinking back on her time on the radio, Westheimer also muses about two of the mentors she credits with giving her the ability to speak freely and openly about sex without fear of diluting her messages and advice, the first of which is somewhat unexpected, but makes a lot of sense if one were to think about it.
“I have to say ‘thank you’ to Hugh Hefner. He had an organization called Free Speech, and I never needed it, but we knew each other well. He would always put on his housecoat if I visited the Playboy Mansion, and it was he and his organization that convinced me that it would be okay to say these words because I was being a professional and an expert and that I wasn’t saying them to titillate. I think that’s why I was so successful, but he was one of the first people to take away the fear that I couldn’t teach in the way I wanted to.”
“I think I was already very well trained by the time I started my show,” she continues before talking about the person she credits with guiding her education in the field. “I was already an older woman by that point, and I wasn’t appearing on television in a short skirt. People realized that I was fortunate to be trained as a doctor by one of the best mentors possible, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, who unfortunately died very young. Another thing that I didn’t tell Ryan that I’m telling you and that I often tell to young people all the time is that you don’t have to like your mentor. You don’t have to become best friends with them. You just have to take what they can teach you in your own quest to become a professional. That’s a very important message for people. Often, people think that their mentors have to become their best friends. That’s not so. A mentor has to be somebody that someone like me has to respect enough to work with them for several years or more. That helped me to have the assurance to know what I say is correct; to have that respect with the mentors that I had along the way.”
Despite her seemingly bottomless wealth of knowledge on the topics of sex, sexuality, and biology, Westheimer also never pretends to have all the answers, and she believes that one of the keys to her success has been her honesty.
“I’m never embarrassed to say ‘I don’t know.’ That’s something a lot of professionals don’t do. They’ll come up with some answer even if they don’t know something, but it might not be the right answer. They’re just afraid of what it would look like if they don’t have all the answers. If I didn’t have the answer or scientifically validated data that could point me in the right direction, I always admitted when I didn’t know something. That helped me a lot. It forced me to find things out for myself, and if I didn’t find it, I admit I didn’t find it. Sometimes people would call into my show, I would say I didn’t know the answer to their question, and then they would call back in a week or two, and maybe I had found an answer or I still didn’t know. I never made things up, and maybe that’s what helped me my entire career. We have to teach people to not make things up. Just admit that you don’t know.”
Westheimer’s belief that honesty is the best policy when giving people advice of subjects that are hard to speak openly about has remained the same, even as the technology used to convey her messages has changed wildly since she started her career in radio. While she jokes about being computer illiterate, there was one invention that she credits with bringing her a lot of success. At the same time, she does worry that the rapid evolution of technology today is forcing her to look at her profession in new ways.
“The Walkman meant that kids on Sunday evenings didn’t have to be told to take a shower and go to bed. At ten o’clock, they were in bed with that Walkman, and for me it was a fantastic boost to my career. Parents didn’t know what they were listening to. But these days, families don’t watch television or go to the movies much together anymore. Everyone’s sitting in different parts of the house, and to me, that’s kind of the first signs of loneliness when you start doing things like that in solitude. I have a new book coming out this summer – a new edition of Sex for Dummies – with new chapters for millennials and older people, but also parts where I talk specifically about loneliness. Books have always helped my career, so I feel like talking about how people are doing things more on their own today is important.”
Ask Dr. Ruth also showcases Westheimer’s effervescent wit, a quality that people gravitate towards almost as much as her openness and transparency, including a couple of anecdotes about her period as a pop culture icon, which at one point included a pilot shot for a sitcom that never made it to television.
“You took a clip of the pilot for the television show that I did that never made it to air, Dr. Ruth’s House,” she says turning to White with a hearty chuckle when asked about some of the things she liked seeing most in the film. “My one demand for that show – which was about me being a widower and having a residence on this university campus where I was teaching and living with students – was that my character had to have a love affair. The sitcom never materialized, and I still laugh whenever it’s brought up or I think about it. They bought me a whole wardrobe for that show, and the coat they got me was one that I ended up wearing for years.”
But perhaps the most humanizing and humorous anecdote to come out of our interview involves something that didn’t even make it into the final cut of Ask Dr. Ruth; mostly because the filmmakers had no idea at the time the backstory behind one of the film’s earliest and funniest throwaway moments where she explains her cluttered desk, something thousands of viewers will immediately relate to.
“When I saw that sign, I knew I just had to have it,” she says with a hearty laugh when asked about a placard over her desk that says ‘A cluttered desk is a sign of genius’. “I’m German-Jewish, and basically German Jews are usually known for being very orderly. Not me. I’m VERY disorganized. I have a cleaning lady who comes twice every week, so my house isn’t dirty, but you can tell that I’m just naturally disorganized and cluttered.”
“I’ll tell you a secret: Before any reporters come to my house – for example, The New York Times and People Magazine just came a few days ago – my housekeeper, Skurte, comes on days when journalists come, and she takes all of the clutter I have in a tablecloth and puts the whole thing on my bed. If you see the film, there’s a scene where I tell Ryan that he can’t go into the bedroom, and that it’s the one place in my home that’s off limits. That’s the reason why. (laughs) I never told him that before now. On my late husband’s bed there were three tablecloths full of my stuff, and when the journalists leave, all those photographs, books, and papers come right back out of the bedroom.”
Thinking about the clutter I currently had on my desk and piled up in my closets, I suddenly realized one of Westheimer’s greatest traits. Even when she was kidding around, she was personable enough to make anyone in her presence feel comfortable and less alone in the world.
Ask Dr. Ruth is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver and expands across Canada in the coming weeks.